In exposing inept governance, the virus which causes covid-19 proved itself a political muckraker – as the American response amply illustrated.
The US has a history of botched response to contagious diseases. The 1918 influenza pandemic began largely in US army camps. Instead of containing the virus, deployed troops spread it.
That withstanding, before the covid-19 pandemic, the US was rated as the country best equipped to deal with an epidemic. “If you look historically in the United States when it is challenged with something like this, they pull out all the stops across the system and they make it work,” said Bruce Aylward. “In international crises, America has always been the country to which other countries have turned for leadership. And now, which country is looking to the United States? No one,” said British international relations expert Elisabeth Braw.
The blame for the lame response rests squarely on US president Donald Trump, who dismantled federal ability to deal with an epidemic a year before covid-19 seized the headlines. Trump did less than nothing to prepare the US for its outbreak. Trump pathologically lied about the situation and created confusion – behaviors which are Trump trademarks.
In late January, Peter Navarro, the US president’s chief trade adviser, warned that the covid-19 tsunami was coming to America: an epidemic that could cost trillions of dollars and a half-million lives. A heedless US President Trump called covid-19 a “hoax” a month later (29 February). Less than 2 weeks later, on 13 March, Trump declared covid-19 a national emergency, but did not coordinate a national response. On 18 March 2020, Trump declared martial law: using a standing statute to allow the government to run the US economy as it chooses. Trump then dawdled before mandating the production of test kits.
Instead of leadership, Trump treated the American epidemic as political theater. Following his typical pattern, Trump’s utterances about covid-19 were mostly lies.
Trump fired officials under his aegis who criticized the pathetic American response to its epidemic and badmouthed those he cannot squash.
The leader of the US federal legislature’s lower house, Nancy Pelosi, said that “Trump’s denial at the beginning was deadly. His delay in getting equipment to where it’s needed is deadly. As the president fiddles, people are dying.” Trump retaliated by calling Pelosi “a sick puppy” – typical Trump.
The US ran severely short of medical equipment and supplies with a few weeks after its epidemic began raging. Under Trump, critical medical equipment under federal control was allocated according to political allegiance. Republican states (Trump is a Republican) got more than enough supplies while states led by the opposition party suffered shortages.
As to international relations, Trump instituted a policy of piracy and hoarding. Domestic companies were banned from exporting medical face masks. The US also bribed air carriers loaded with medical supplies destined for other countries to divert their shipment to the US.
In a fit of petty pique, Trump threatened to withhold funds to the World Health Organization: the international institution responsible for overseeing health care and disease prevention around the world.
Extending his quackery beyond politics, Trump promoted fake cures for covid-19. In the US, practicing medicine without a license is illegal – unless you are a politician in good standing with the party in power. Trump also politicized the nation’s disease control bureaucracy, which removed its previous warnings against the medicines Trump trumpeted.
The American domestic response to its covid-19 outbreak was uncoordinated: each state deciding on how to respond. The states decided on belated, economically crippling lockdowns which did nothing to stymie the raging epidemic. “It’s mind-boggling, actually, the degree of disorganization,” said Tom Frieden, former head of the US disease control prevention. Frieden said governmental responses were “epic failures.”
The US enacted a $2 trillion economic stimulus 27 March: doling out largess to large corporations while providing only pittances for the unemployed. US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lamented, “The option that we have is to either let them suffer with nothing, or to allow this greed to contribute to the largest income inequality gap in our future.”
Small-business owners that were supposed to be helped out by the American stimulus bill reported no help. Rather than shell out relief directly, the federal government gave the relief money to the country’s largest banks, which hoarded the funds rather than distribute them.
While over a hundred million Americans economically devastated by the government throttling its domestic economy and providing scant financial relief, Trump promised American oil companies and other large corporations that they will be compensated for their fallen profits.
The US has a federal labor bureau responsible for looking out for workers interests. With tens of millions unemployed, the labor secretary under Trump, Eugene Scalia, groused that unemployment payments were too generous. “The labor department chose the narrowest possible definition of who qualifies for pandemic unemployment assistance,” reported American employment maven Andrew Stettner. US senator Lindsay Graham, a Republican archconservative, said “the state systems are failing. I don’t see any action being taken.”
Similarly, the US government did next to nothing for poorer communities and people in that country. Black Americans disproportionately suffered from covid-19. The racial disparities in cases and outcomes reflected what happens when an epidemic overlays entrenched social inequities.
Though whites barely recognize it, the US is a sorely racist nation, with blacks especially discriminated against. States recommending that people wear masks to protect against contagion set off additional harassment of blacks by racist police. “Black folks can’t even wear hooded sweatshirts without being accused of being criminals,” said American sociologist Michael Jeffries.
“Public health officials universally agree that detention in crowded facilities increases the risk of transmission,” reports Refugees International (stating the obvious). The US imprisons a much higher percentage of its people than any other nation. Prisons are packed mostly with blacks, other minorities, and the poor.
Covid-19 epidemics tore through the huge US prison population. Several nations released prisoners to limit contagion, including autocratic Iran and Turkey. The US did not.
Reminiscent of Nazi treatment of Jews, and in violation of domestic laws, the US has large populations of immigrants in concentration camps, with families torn apart. The American government does its best to repress news of these camps, and the mainstream media largely obliges the government’s wishes.
Outbreaks spread through America’s concentration camps, brought in by guards.
On 28 March, a federal judge ordered the government to release thousands of imprisoned migrant children, after reports of outbreaks in the facilities they are held in. Having done nothing to prevent contagion, the Trump government only reluctantly responded to the court order. US courts have no way to enforce their rulings.
Ishi Nobu, “Coronavirus pandemic,” (10 April 2020).
Eric Lipton et al, “He could have seen what was coming: behind Trump’s failure on the virus,” The New York Times (11 April 2020).
Jeff Stein et al, “Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia faces blowback as he curtails scope of worker relief in unemployment crisis,” The Washington Post (10 April 2020).
Lena H. Sun, “A plan to defeat coronavirus finally emerges, but it’s not from the White House,” The Washington Post (10 April 2020).
Miriam Jordan, “Judge urges release of migrant children after 4 test positive for coronavirus in detention,” The New York Times (29 March 2020).